I arrive in Cairns to cloudy skies and hair-curling humidity, and ask my driver if he thinks it will rain over the next few days. “It might,” he says, “but you would know as much as me”, dashing my hopes of some insider meteorological knowledge. Cairns is considerably closer to Port Moresby than to Brisbane and the weather up here is, at best, changeable. On the 30-minute drive north towards Palm Cove the scenery is unmistakably tropical – cane fields, faded old Queenslanders and low hanging clouds.
I’m here to see the new Alamanda Palm Cove by Lancemore, a rebrand of one of the region’s original five-star properties, the Angsana Resort & Spa, which opened in the mid 1980s. The rebrand marks the Lancemore Group’s first foray north of the Victorian border and also the exit of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts from Australia; the Angsana was its only property. Set across a few low-rise buildings (nothing in Palm Cove goes much above three stories), the sprawling resort is classically Queensland with its airy open passageways, shady palms and chic white stone. Three small swimming pools are dotted around the grounds amongst innumerable palm trees, one directly next to the beach. Alamanda is the only resort in Palm Cove itself to offer direct beach frontage, with the others all requiring a (admittedly small) hop across the main road. There is a ridiculously charming wedding chapel right by the sand, which makes sense when you consider Palm Cove touts itself as the “wedding capital of Australia”. The property has undergone a A$1 million refresh and everything looks shiny and new, no mean feat in the habitually corrosive humidity.
The apartments are fully self-contained, also a new venture for Lancemore which traditionally operates full service hotels. But this style seems to suit the north Queensland market particularly well and almost all the properties in Palm Cove operate on this model. It’s nice to come back to your room after a swim (or retreat during a sudden downpour) to a nicely stocked Miele kitchen and a tumble dryer. But as with all self-contained accommodation you need to be aware that there are some limitations. There’s no turndown service and while there’s a Nespresso machine, you need to pay for the pods at reception. But what it lacks in services it certainly makes up for in space – I could have played cricket in the hallway of my three-bedroom apartment.
My first stop (after a very quick swim) is the spa. As the Angsana the spa was famous in its own right and drew many customers from outside the hotel. As the Alamanda, I expect it will stay the same. The massage itself is excellent, but there is something extra relaxing about listening to the crashing waves from the ocean just metres away during.
The hotel restaurant, NuNu, was previously at the nearby Peppers Beach Club and has been one of the most popular restaurants in Palm Cove for 20 years. It is something of a coup that it has moved from its homeground to join the new property, and the restaurant has almost tripled in size with seating for 169. The multi course tasting menu (A$110 per person plus A$65 for matching wines) gives a delicious snapshot of a slightly confusing menu (divided into Titbits, Bright and Light, and Robust and Bold categories it is hard to know how much one should order). The meal started with fresh lemon sourdough (the starter for the dough has been going since the restaurant opened in 2004) and housemade pickles, followed by a delicate house-cured barramundi with orange and hazelnuts, and a mix of smoked red emperor, peanut and papaya served on a betel leaf and designed to be wrapped up and eaten with your hands. Two slightly larger mains followed; local reef fish with sage and ricotta dumplings and a burnt butter sauce (easily the best dish of the night), and a beetroot poached Gippsland beef fillet. After a petite pre-dessert of a light yoghurt sorbet and the final course of lemon semolina cake with rainforest honeycomb and yoghurt marshmallow, I am wishing I had worn stretchier pants.
Palm Cove itself manages to feel at once like a posh resort enclave and a sleepy beachside town. Most people walk around barefoot but you can buy six types of brie at the convenience store. I take an early walk on the pristine beach and it’s just me, a few locals and their dogs. It’s interesting to note that no one up here walks with their feet in the ocean – late April is still stinger season and the only safe place to swim is in two netted areas at either end of the beach. The town is quiet during the day, as is the resort, when most visitors are out exploring the region’s big drawcard, the Great Barrier Reef. That’s the thing about this part of Queensland; you can be as active or lazy as you like. Spend your days white water rafting in the Atherton Tablelands, snorkelling on the reef or sea kayaking around the coast. Or, as I did, you can doze by the pool in the smudgy, tropical heat and ponder what’s for lunch.